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Watch Out for These Pitfalls While Working Abroad

I was in the middle of my third month working abroad in France when I realized my landlord had no intention of returning the $700 deposit I’d given her at the beginning of my stay. I was working as an English teaching assistant, and after previous experience studying abroad, I felt comfortable navigating both the […]

I was in the middle of my third month working abroad in France when I realized my landlord had no intention of returning the $700 deposit I’d given her at the beginning of my stay. I was working as an English teaching assistant, and after previous experience studying abroad, I felt comfortable navigating both the language, everyday life and culture in France. After a day of waiting for my landlady to meet me at our apartment with no response to my messages, however, I was surprised to find myself facing the prospect of losing $700, almost a full month salary for me.

Further research proved that the apartment my landlady had rented to a flatmate and me belonged to a subsidized housing agency. In the process of illegally subletting these two rooms, our landlady was raking in nearly $900 of profit off of our combined rents each month, in addition to my $700 deposit she had decided to keep.  

“Finding housing is one of the biggest challenges faced by young people abroad, especially if your company or job placement offers no assistance,” said Cathryn Fortuna, a Content Editor and Marketing Assistant for GoAbroad, a website that helps young people find work opportunities in foreign countries through job directories and travel guides and articles.

While a year working abroad may seem like a practical way for young people to earn money while exploring new countries around the world, housing is just one of the many problems they might encounter when moving to a foreign place. Each year, in France and Spain alone, more than 4,000 foreigners come to work as English teaching assistants through government-funded programs, both of which offer no assistance with housing. In addition to the problem of lodging, these assistants, along with many young people working abroad, can face several logistical difficulties upon arrival.

Isabelle Charo, an English Teaching Assistant with the Fulbright U.S. Program in Marseille, France, explained that at first she was overwhelmed by the prospect of organizing her new life abroad ahead of time, with only a handbook of general suggestions from her program as guidance. “There was really a lot of initiative we had to take on our own,” she said.

For me, this meant finding an apartment beforehand by myself, an ocean away from a city I had never visited before. I did my best to navigate this process quickly, knowing that in order to set up a bank account and receive my first month salary, I needed a French address.

In addition to these logistical problems, Fortuna explained in an email that the most common challenges young Americans might face while working abroad are culture shock, language barriers, and differences in work ethic. She added that these challenges can vary with location. “It depends on how drastic the change is from back home. For example, you may be more shocked by India than, say, England or France,” she said.

Michael Gulcicek, a teaching assistant with the Fulbright Program in one of the largest slum communities in Dehradun, a city in India, has found the cultural adjustment to be quite difficult at times.  “I’m starting my life for the first time outside of college or any designated structure and I’m doing that in a place that I had no cultural awareness of,” he said. “It’s really been all about adapting and learning the whole time.” Gulcicek said that at certain moments his adjustment to India has been “a steep learning curve in so many ways.”

One of these steep learning curves for Gulcicek has come with trying to make local friends. For him, forming relationships with local people is crucial to learning more about a new culture. “It’s really important for me to have connection to the place that I’m staying through people,” he said. Nevertheless, he adds that his inability to speak Hindi, along with his drastically different cultural and economic background, has hindered this process.

Charo has also had to make an extra effort to connect with the local population. Twice a week, she participates in a running club and volunteers with a local organization that fights against human trafficking. Through these activities, she feels excited to have the opportunity to connect with people she might not have otherwise met. “It’s rewarding in the sense that I feel like I’ve really put myself out there and tried to break out of just staying within a little American bubble, which is my comfort place,” she said.

Still, she adds that these friendships have been slower and more superficial than her American ones. “They’re sort of in the context of a structured community that I opted into. . . Our relationships are not that deep,” she said.

If sometimes work or local friendships have been tiresome, Gulcicek and Charo know they can always fall back on the support of the fellow American and international friends. For Gulcicek, these people are his roommates. “Talking to those Americans every day brings me close to home,” he said.

Naomi Pearlman, an English teacher working on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand, started to feel homesick during the period of Thanksgiving. As a result, she brought all of her international friends from South Africa, the Philippines and England to create a “friendsgiving” potluck. On the night of Thanksgiving, she created a new tradition among an international community instead of eating alone.

Though these international and American friends can provide a sense of comfort in an unfamiliar place, Gulcicek knows that for him, having a rewarding experience abroad is contingent upon interacting with the local people and setting. “The more you get to know the culture, the deeper and more meaningful and rich the experience becomes,” he said.

Fortuna agrees that a year abroad provides young people with a huge potential for cultural and personal discovery. “she said. According to Fortuna, a new language in a new environment with no one you know can be “a perfect recipe for personal growth.”

For Pearlman, personal growth has come simply from taking a break from a more traditional and straightforward path after college. Though at first, her move to Thailand felt like a leap of faith, she has also learned about flexibility. “It’s taught me a lot about letting go, especially for the future,” said Pearlman.

For me, the biggest lesson I learned was one of self-advocacy. It was this initiative, along with support from my local French community, that allowed me to navigate the unfortunate situation with my landlord. I stood up to her, demanded payment, and eventually, took the information I had to her housing agency so that she would not be able to take advantage of other foreigners like me in the future. Despite these challenges, and also because of them, my year abroad, as Fortuna indicated, has indeed become a great tool of self-discovery, one that I am quite grateful to have had.

Suggestions for a Successful Trip Abroad:

Feeling lost during your time working abroad? Here are some tips from a travel industry expert and fellow young travelers to help you make the most out of your time in a new place.

How to Find Housing:

  • Do research in advance. Charo says picking an apartment online ahead of time may bring you a lot of peace of mind.
  • If you can’t choose lodging in advance, book a temporary stay. “At the very least, you can more easily research a more permanent housing situation while living in a hostel or Airbnb,” said Fortuna.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a temporary stay a permanent one. Fortuna explained that inquiring about weekly or monthly rates in hostels and Airbnbs for any stay longer than two weeks is always a good idea, even if it’s not as “glamorous” an apartment as you might have envisioned.
  • If long-term Airbnb and hostel rentals aren’t available, in most smaller and larger communities, expatriate community and housing Facebook pages often have postings for flatshares and studios.

How to Find Your Community:

  • Live with roommates, Charo says, especially those who are your age. This can be one of the easiest ways to build people into your life.
  • Make the first move. Though Pearlman didn’t know anyone on her island when she first arrived, some of her earliest successful relationships with locals started off by striking up a conversation with strangers such as restaurant owners. “They are people that I still go back to,” she said.
  • Use dating applications. Gulcicek says that he has been able to connect with local friends through the use of dating apps such as Tinder. If the idea of using a dating application is intimidating, consider Bumble BFF, an application where you can search specifically for platonic connections in your area.
  • Look for local language exchanges in your community, volunteering and extra-curricular activities. You may not only find a community of people you like, but hobbies you enjoy too.

How to Make the Most of Your Year:

  • Save more money than you think you need, as it may take a while to set up a bank account. Having extra cash will also allow you to fully take advantage of cultural activities once you’ve arrived.
  • Polish your language skills once you’re there. Gulcicek says that he and his friends have also met some international friends through a local language school they attend. 
  • Try and set some goals for yourself for the year, Charo also suggests. These goals can encompass anything, from work, to visiting new places, to trying a new activity.
  • Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself in uncomfortable situations. Reach out to leaders of your program and co-workers to get advice. Keep persisting until you find a solution.
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